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6 Hopeful and 4 Scary Trends for Grad School Grants

Rebounding economy holds hope for more graduate student financial aid.

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The recent economic troubles have sparked four trends that are worsening immediate financial hurdles for almost anyone considering graduate school, causing applications to many graduate programs to fall.

[Browse our guide to Paying for Graduate School.]

But the downturn in demand, signs of economic rebound, and increasing inventiveness by college administrators are sparking six other developments that provide long-term hope for more affordable graduate courses, especially for students willing to consider new kinds of colleges and degrees.

[Read about how to use competition among graduate schools to get funding.]

First, the bad graduate school news:

1. Rising tuition: Graduate tuition, especially for professional schools, has been skyrocketing, as colleges scramble to raise revenue. The cost of a year's tuition and fees at pharmacy graduate programs, for example, rose by more than 50 percent—from $13,600 to $20,800—from 2002 through 2008, the last year for which national averages are available. And announcements from across the country show that grad tuition has shot up since then. The University of California system recently warned it will raise professional school tuition by as much as 31 percent in 2011. And despite a downturn in the legal profession, some top-tier programs are still raising tuition faster than inflation. Stanford Law School plans to raise tuition by 5.75 percent this fall, for example.

2. Reduced employer support: The Great Recession caused many employers to slash their tuition reimbursement perks for graduate study. The percentage of employers who don't offer any reimbursement at all for graduate study jumped to 44 percent last year, up from 35 percent in 2007, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. And those employers who still offer some reimbursement benefits have become stingier and tougher, some graduate students report.

[Get tips on how to persuade your boss to pay for your graduate tuition.]

3. Fewer fellowships: The number of Ph.D. fellowships and assistantships is being cut at many colleges. Generous schools such as Columbia University, Emory University and Yale University have already trimmed their budgets by cutting back on the number of funded graduate students they're accepting. And many public universities, such as those in Arizona, Nevada, and Louisiana, are bracing for budget cuts that could further slash the number of funded grad seats. Meanwhile, debates over the federal budget have left funding for federal graduate grants in limbo.

[Get tips on how to get graduate schools to increase your financial aid.]

4. Fewer good jobs: Budget-cutting colleges are phasing out the cushy lifetime professorship jobs to which many graduate students aspire, making borrowing to pursue a doctorate (especially in the humanities) a lousy investment, some embittered Ph.D.s say. Monica Harris, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, warns applicants against borrowing to fund a Ph.D.: "If you're not good enough" to get into a good graduate school and get fully funded, "you almost certainly won't be good enough to earn a competitive academic/research job when you're done," she says. Even if humanities grad students get funded, they should prepare for "the very real prospect of working five to 12 years at pitifully low stipends," she adds.

As a result of rising tuition and shrinking aid, the price grad students actually pay—after subtracting out grants—has been skyrocketing, especially at professional schools. A year at a typical law school—including living costs but subtracting scholarships and grants— now exceeds $41,000. It was less than $30,000 in 2004.

[Read about new help for paying off federal student loans.]

The rising net price of graduate school appears to be pricing some students out of programs. Even business schools, once considered immune to economic downturns, have reported declines in applications for the priciest kinds of degrees, such as full-time, two-year M.B.A.s. And a recent survey by Moody's found that only 58 percent of universities reported increased graduate enrollment in the fall of 2010. In 2009, 91 percent had increased their graduate enrollments.